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1 Kings xx. 1-30.

In the Septuagint and in Josephus the events narrated in the twentieth chapter of the Book of Kings are placed after the meeting of Elijah with Ahab at the door of Naboth's vineyard, which occupies the twenty-first chapter in our version. This order of events seems the more probable, but no chronological data are given us in the long but fragmentary details of Ahab's reign. They are, in fact, composed of different sets of records, partly historical, partly prophetic, and partly taken from some special monograph on the career of Elijah. Here, too, we may observe that some most important details are altogether omitted, and that we only learn them (1) from the inscription of King Mesha, and (2) from the clay tablets of Assyria.

1. As regards King Mesha, the monument containing his very interesting annals is generally known as The Moabite Stone. It is a stele of black basalt, 3 feet 10 inches high, 2 feet broad, 14½ inches thick, rounded at the top and bottom almost into a semicircle. The Phœnician inscription is of capital importance both for philology and history. It was first discovered by Mr. Klein, the German missionary of an English society452 at Dibon, east of the Dead Sea, and it is now at the Louvre. Dibon is now Dibbân.

Mr. Klein in 1868, at Jerusalem, informed Professor Petermann of Berlin of the existence of this ancient relic, and from a few letters of the thirty-four lines which he had copied the Professor at once pronounced that the language employed was Phœnician. When M. Clermont Ganneau, the French consul at Jerusalem, endeavoured to get possession of it, the Bedawin discovered that it was regarded with deep interest by European scholars. They immediately began to quarrel over its possession, and the Arab who had been sent to copy it barely escaped with his life. In their greed and jealousy these modern Moabites "sooner than give it up, put a fire under it, and threw cold water on it, and so broke it, and then distributed the bits among the different families to be placed in the granaries and to serve as blessings upon the corn; for they said that without the stone (or its equivalent in hard cash) a blight would fall upon their crops." Squeezes had been previously taken from it by M. Ganneau and Captain Warren, from which the text has been restored.708708   For these particulars, and the following translations, see Dr. Ginsburg in Records of the Past, xi. 163; and Dr. Neubauer, id., New Series, ii. 194; The Moabite Stone, Second Edition (Reeves & Turner), 1871; Dr. Schlottmann, Die Sieggessaüle Mesas, 1870; Nöldeke, Die Inschrift der König Mesa, 1870; Stade, i. 534; Kittel, ii. 198, etc.

It records three great events in the reign of Mesha.

(1) Lines 1-21. Wars of Mesha with Omri and his successors.

(2) Lines 21-31. Public works of Mesha after his deliverance from his Jewish oppressors.

(3) Lines 31-34. His successful wars against the453 Edomites (or a people of Horonaim), undertaken by command of his god Chemosh. The date of the erection of the monolith is about b.c. 890.

It begins thus:—

"(1) I, Mesha, am son of Chemosh-Gad,709709   Chemosh-Gad perhaps came to the throne in the fourth year of Omri, about b.c. 926, and reigned till the close of Ahaziah's reign (b.c. 896). King of Moab, (2) the Dibonite. My father reigned over Moab 30 years, and I reigned (3) after my father. And I erected this Stone to Chemosh (a stone of salvation),710710   Comp. 1 Sam. vii. 12. (4) for he saved me from all despoilers, and let me see my desire upon all my enemies. (5) Now Omri, King of Israel, he oppressed Moab many days, for Chemosh was angry with his (6) land. His son succeeded him, and he also said, I will oppress Moab. In my days he said (Let us go) (7) and I will see my desire on him and his house, and Israel said, I shall destroy it for ever. Now Omri took the land (8) Medeba, and (the enemy) occupied it (in his days and in) the days of his sons, forty years. And Chemosh (had mercy) (9) on it in my days."

He goes on to tell how he built Bael Meon and Kirjathaim; captured Ataroth, and killed all its warriors, and devoted its spoil to Chemosh. "And Chemosh said to me, Go take Nebo against Israel." He took it, slew seven thousand men, devoted the women and maidens to Ashtar-Chemosh, and offered Jehovah's vessels to Chemosh. Then he took Jahas which the king of Israel had fortified, and annexed it to Dibon; built Korcha, its palaces, prisons, etc., Aroer, Bethbamoth, and other towns which he colonised with poor Moabites; and took Horonaim by assault.


There the inscription ends, but not until it has given us some details of a series of bloody wars about which the Scripture narrative is almost entirely silent, though in 2 Kings iii. 4-27 it narrates Mesha's desperate resistance of Israel, Judah, and Edom (b.c. 896).

On this inscription we may briefly remark that for Chemosh-Gad, Dr. Neubauer reads Chemosh-melech, and makes various other changes and suggestions.

2. From the annals of Assyria we learn the altogether unexpected fact that Ahabu Sirlai, i.e., "Ahab of Israel," was acting as one of the allies, or more probably as one of the vassals, of Syria in the great battle fought at Karkar, b.c. 854, against Shalmanezer II., by Hittites, Hamathites, and Syrians. Whether this was before the invasion of Benhadad, or after his defeat, is uncertain.

The twentieth chapter of the Book of Kings tells us that Benhadad, the Aramæan king, accompanied by thirty-two feudatory princes of Hittites, Hamathites, and others, gathered together all his host with his horses and chariots, and proclaimed war against Israel. Unable to meet this vast army in the field, Ahab shut himself up in Samaria, and Benhadad went up and besieged it. We do not know which Benhadad this was. It could not have been the grandson of Rezon, whom, fourteen years earlier, King Asa had bribed to attack Baasha in order to divert him from building Ramah.711711   For it is indirectly mentioned that "his father" had taken cities from Omri. It may have been his son or grandson bearing the same religious dynastic name. In any case the policy of attacking Israel was suicidal. If the kings had possessed the prescient glance of the prophets they could not have failed to see on the northern horizon the cloud of Assyrian power, which menaced455 them all with cruel extinction at the hands of that atrocious people. Their true policy would have been to form an offensive and defensive league, instead of coveting one another's dominions. Although Assyria had not yet risen to the zenith of her empire, she was already formidable enough to convince the King of Damascus that he would never be able single-handed to prevent Syria from being crushed before her. Instead of inflicting ruinous losses and humiliations on the tribes of Israel, the dynasty of Rezon, if it had been wise in its day, would have insured their friendly aid against the horrible common enemy of the nations.

When Benhadad had succeeded in reducing Ahab to hopeless straits, he sent him a herald to demand the admission of ambassadors. Their ultimatum was couched in language of the deadliest insult. Benhadad laid insolent claim to everything which Ahab possessed—his silver, his gold, his wives, and the fairest of his children. To save his people from ruin, Ahab—it is strange that throughout the narrative we do not hear one word either about Jezebel or Elijah—sent an answer of the humblest submission. Tyre gave him no help, nor did Judah. He seems at this time to have been entirely isolated and to have sunk to the nadir of his degradation. "It is true," he said, "my lord, and king; I, and all that I possess, is thine." The depth of humiliation involved in such a concession is the measure of the utter straits to which Ahab was reduced. When an Eastern king had to give up to his conqueror even his seraglio—yes, even his queen—all his power must have been humbled to the very dust. And at the head of Ahab's seraglio was Jezebel. How frenzied must have been the thoughts of that terrible woman, when she saw that456 her Baal, and the Astarte to whom her father was a priest, in spite of the temple which she had built, and her eight hundred and fifty priests of Baal and Asherah with all their vestments and pompous ceremonies and blood-stained invocations, had wholly failed to save her—a great king's daughter and a great king's wife—from drinking to the very dregs this cup of shame!

Encouraged by this abject demeanour into yet more outrageous insolence, Benhadad sent back his ambassadors with the further menace that he would himself send his messengers next day into Samaria, who should search and rifle not only the palace of Ahab, but the houses of all his servants, from which they should take away everything that was pleasant in their eyes.

The merciless demand kindled in the breast of the wretched king one last spark of the courage of despair. Nothing could be worse than such a pillage. Death itself seemed preferable. He summoned together all the elders of the land to a great council, to which the people also were invited, and he set the state of things before them. The fact gives us an interesting glimpse into the constitution of the kingdom of Israel. It greatly resembled that of the little Greek states in the days of the Iliad. Under ordinary circumstances of prosperity the king was within certain limits despotic; but he might easily be reduced to the necessity of consulting a sort of senate (γερουσία), composed of his greatest subjects,712712   LXX., Exod. iii. 16. and at these open-air deliberations the people were present as assessors on whose will depended the ultimate decision.

Ahab put before his council the desperate condition to which he had been reduced by the Syrian leaguer.457 He recounted the cruel terms to which he had submitted in order to save his people from destruction. From the second embassage of Benhadad it was clear that the first demand had only been made in the hope that its refusal would give the Syrians an excuse for pressing on the siege, and delivering the city to ravage and slaughter. Was it their will that the insolent foreign tyrant should have his way, and be permitted without let or hindrance to rifle their houses, and carry away their goodliest sons as eunuchs and their fairest wives as concubines? He asked their advice how to overcome this dire calamity;

"What reinforcement we may gain from hope,

If not what resolution from despair."

The elders saw that even massacre and pillage could hardly be worse than a tame submission to such demands. They plucked up courage and said to Ahab, "Hearken not to him, nor consent"; and the people shouted their applause to the heroic refusal.713713   Comp. Josh. ix. 18; Judg. xi. 11. The king seems in this instance to have been more despondent than his subjects, perhaps because he was better able than they to gauge the immense military superiority of his invader. Even his second message, though it rejected Benhadad's demand, was almost pusillanimous in its submission. With bated breath and whispering humbleness Ahab said to the Syrian ambassadors, quite in the tone of a vassal: "Tell my lord the king, I will submit to his first demands; I may not consent to his final ones."

The ambassadors went to Benhadad, and returned with the fierce menace that in the name of his god458714714   1 Kings xx. 10. Elohim here, doubtless, means the false gods of Benhadad. Vat. LXX., ὁ θεός; but Chaldee, "the terrors." their king would shatter Samaria into dust, of which the handfuls would not suffice for each of his soldiers.715715   "Fanfaronnade, qui veut dire; je réduirai cette bicoque en poussière; j'ai avee moi plus de monde qu'il ne faudra pour l'emporter tout entière" (Reuss). Comp. Herod., viii. 226, where Dieneces answers the braggart vaunt of the Medes. Ahab replied firmly in a happy proverb, "Let not him that girdeth on his armour boast himself as he that putteth it off."716716   Reuss renders it, "Ceignant n'est pas encore gaignant." The proverb resembles in different aspects the precept of Solon, τέρμα ὁρᾶν βιότοιο, and "Praise a fair day at night"; and the Italian, "Capo ha cosa fatta"; and the Latin, "Ne triumphum canas ante victoriam"; and the French, "Il ne faut pas vendre le peau de l'ours avant de l'avoir tué."

The warning proverb was reported to the Aramæan king, whilst in the insolent confidence of victory he was drinking himself drunk in his war-booths.717717   A.V., "pavilions"; but the word (sukkoth) implies that they were temporary booths rather than tents. They resembled the birchwood pavilions made for the Turkish pachas in campaigns (Keil). It nettled him to fury. "Plant the engines," he exclaimed. The catapults and battering-rams,718718   A.V., "Set yourselves in array." LXX., οἰκοδομήσατε χάρακα; Vulg., circumdate civitatem. with all the engines which constituted the siege-train of the day, were at once set in motion, the scaling ladders brought up, and the archers set in position, just as we see in the Assyrian Kouyunjik sculptures of the siege of Lachish and other cities by Sennacherib.719719   Now in the British Museum.

Ahab's heart must have sunk within him, for he knew his impotence, and he knew also the horrors which befell a city taken after desperate resistance. But he was not left unencouraged. The characteristic of the prophets was that dauntless confidence in459 Jehovah which so often made a prophet the Tyrtæus of his native land, unless the land had sunk into utter apostasy. In this extreme of peril a nameless prophet—the Rabbis, who always guess at a name when they can, say it was Micaiah ben Imlah—came to Ahab. As though to emphasise the supernatural character of his communication, he pointed to the chariots and archers and the Syrian host—which, if the subsequent numbers be accurate, must have reached the astounding total of one hundred and thirty thousand men—and said, in the name of Jehovah:—

"Hast thou seen all this great multitude?
Lo! I will deliver it into thine hand to-day:
And thou shalt know that I am the Lord."

"By whom?" was the astonished and half-despairing question of the king; and the strange answer was:—

"By the young servants720720   1 Kings xx. 14 (נַעָרִים). of the provincial governors."

It was to be made clear that this was a victory due to the intervention of God, and not won by the power nor the might of man, lest the warriors of Israel should be able to boast of the arm of flesh.

"Who shall lead the assault?" asked the king.

"Thou!" answered the prophet.

Nothing could be wiser than this counsel, now that the nation was brought to the extreme edge of hazard. The veterans, perhaps, were intimidated. They would see more clearly the hopelessness of attempting to cope with that colossal host under its five-and-thirty kings. But now the nation, whose veterans had been driven back, evoked the battle-brunt of its youths. The two hundred and thirty-two pages of the district governors were ready to obey orders, ready, like an army of460 Decii to devote their lives to the cause of their country. They were put in the forefront of the battle, and so pitiable was the depression of the capital that Ahab could only number a paltry army of seven thousand soldiers to stand behind their desperate undertaking.721721   Jarchi—more Rabbinico—says that these were the seven thousand who had not bowed the knee to Baal.

Their plan was well laid. They went out at noon. At that burning hour, under the intolerable glare and heat of the Syrian sun—and campaigns were only undertaken in spring and summer—it is almost impossible to bear the weight of armour, or to sit on horseback, or to endure the fierce heat of iron chariots. The first little army which issued from the gates of Samaria might rely on the effects of a surprise. Thousands of the Syrian soldiers expecting nothing less than a battle would be unarmed, and taking their siesta. Their chariots and war steeds would be unharnessed and unprepared.

Benhadad was still continuing his heavy drinking bout with his vassal princes, and not one of them was in a condition to give coherent commands. A messenger announced to the band of royal drunkards that "men" were come out of Samaria. They were too few to call them "an army," and the notion of an attack from that poor handful seemed ridiculous. Benhadad thought they were coming to sue for peace, but whether peace or war were their object he gave the contemptuous order to "take them alive."

It was easier said than done. Led by the king at the head of his valorous youths the little host clashed into the midst of the unwieldly, unprepared, ill-handled Syrian host, and by their first slaughter created one of those fearful panics which have often been the destruction461 of Eastern hosts. The Syrians, whose army was made up of heterogeneous forces, and which could not be managed by thirty-four half-intoxicated feudatories of differing interests and insecure allegiance, was doubtless afraid that internal treachery must have been at work. Like the Midianites, like Zerah's Ethiopian host, like the Edomites in the Valley of Salt, like the Ammonites and Moabites in the wilderness of Tekoa, like the army of Sennacherib, like the enormous and motley hosts of Persia at Marathon, at Platæa, and at Arbela, they were instantly flung into irremediable confusion which tended every moment to be more fatal to itself. The little band of the youths and horses of Israel had nothing to do but to slay, and slay, and slay.722722   1 Kings xx. 20, LXX., καὶ ἐδευτέρωσεν ἒκαστος τὸν παῤ αὐτοῦ. No effective resistance was even attempted. Long before evening the hundred and thirty thousand Syrians, with the entangled mass of their chariots and horsemen, were in headlong flight, while Ahab and the people of Israel slaughtered their flying rear. The defeat became an absolute rout. Benhadad himself had a most narrow escape. He could not even wait for his war chariot. He had to fly with a few of his horsemen, and apparently, so the words may imply, on an inferior horse.723723   Or, "pell-mell." The Hebrew in 1 Kings xx. 20 is, עַל־סוּס וּפָרָשִׁים, "on a horse with (some) horsemen." Klostermann would supply הוּא. Jonathan takes וּפָרָשִׁים as a dual—"and two riders with him"; LXX., ἐφ' ἵππων ἱππέων; Vulg., in equo cum equitibus suis; Luther, "sammt Rossen und Reitern."

What effect was produced on the national mind and on the social religion by this immense deliverance we are not told. Never, certainly, had any nation deeper cause for gratitude to its religious teachers, who alone462 had not despaired of the commonwealth when everything seemed lost. We would fain know where was Elijah at this crisis, and whether he took any part in it. We cannot tell, but we know that as a rule the sons of the prophets acted together under their chiefs, and that individual impulses were rarely encouraged. The very meaning of the "Schools of the Prophets" was that they were all trained to adopt the same principles and to move together as one body.

The service rendered by this prophet, whose very name has been buried in undeserved oblivion, did not end here. Perhaps he saw signs of carelessness and undue exultation. He went again to the king, and warned him that his victory, immense as it had been, was not final. It was no time for him to settle on his lees. The Syrians would assuredly return the following year,724724   See 2 Sam. xi. 1. The custom of all countries in the ancient world was to devote the summer months only to campaigns. There were few or no standing armies, and the citizen-conscripts had to look after their farms, or the nation would have starved. The Assyrians, Babylonians, and Persians introduced a gradual revolution in these respects. probably with increased resources, and with the burning determination to avenge their defeat. Let Ahab look well to his army and his fortresses, and prepare himself for the coming shock!

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